New ‘Defence Authority’ to tackle cases of bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour | Bolt Burdon Kemp New ‘Defence Authority’ to tackle cases of bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour | Bolt Burdon Kemp

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New ‘Defence Authority’ to tackle cases of bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour

The MoD has recently carried out an internal review of inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, harassment and discrimination.  The review was commissioned in April 2019 following a spate of complaints of bad behaviour including a sexual assault against a teenage service person.

The review found that whilst the great majority of service personnel behave appropriately and with respect to one another, there remains an unacceptable level of inappropriate behaviour in some areas, including discrimination against women and ethnic minorities.

The review was conducted by Air Marshal Michael Wigston, who makes a total of 36 important recommendations, including:

  • More responsibility to Commanders to enforce behavioural standards and punish bad behaviour
  • Training at all levels to ensure that service personnel realise what is to be expected of them, with the creation of new performance standards
  • New methods of anonymously reporting inappropriate behaviour through a new hotline, a phone-based app and website forms
  • The creation of a new Defence Authority, which will monitor and deal with serious complaints, such as sexual harassment and bullying

The report acknowledges that the behavioural standards of all three services are not being met and that the service personnel of the future are less likely to be attracted or retained if changes are not implemented.

The overall objective of these recommendations is to change the culture in the forces, which will encourage those who have suffered from inappropriate behaviour, bullying or harassment to come forward with confidence and in the knowledge that their complaints will be dealt with fairly.

Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary for Defence, has already endorsed the recommendations and indicated that steps will be taken to put them into action. She said:

“Whether it is crude comments, discriminatory treatment, or even offences of a sexual nature, inappropriate behaviour has no place in society, let alone in our armed forces… this report sends a clear message and I am committed to ensuring its recommendations are delivered in full.”

I welcome in particular the creation of anonymous hotline to help encourage complainants to come forward.  But I am concerned that any anonymous complaints are followed up and, where appropriate, action is taken.  We know from the 2018 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey that service personnel are reluctant to raise a service complaint.  Of those who were surveyed, 63% did not believe anything would be done by raising a complaint; 50% believed it might adversely affect their career; and 30% did not want to use the complaint procedure.  This demonstrated a serious lack of trust in the formal complaints process, which must be changed.  It also shows how worried service personnel are about how raising a complaint might affect their career.  Without trust in the system, complainants will be left without help or justice.

I also think it is high time that the MoD compared its track record of dealing with complaints with the standards of the private sector, as acknowledged by Air Marshal Michael Wigston:

“The Service Complaints target is to resolve 90% of all complaints within 24 weeks.  In 2018, the Service Complaints Ombudsman reported only 50% of complaints were resolved in 24 weeks.  We found the average target in the private sector for resolution of complaints of inappropriate sexual behaviour is 40 to 45 days”.

The delays identified in the service complaints process are not acceptable, particularly when dealing with cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour.  Victims of this behaviour are often traumatised and left for too long without support or a resolution.  Why should service personnel have to wait longer for these complaints to be decided?

The Service Complainants Ombudsman herself has diligently reported (for several years) that the service complaints system is not efficient, effective or fair, but I have not seen her previous warnings or recommendations taken seriously by the MoD, until now.  I hope that the creation of the new Defence Authority, to streamline the handling of serious cases, will bring a change to the current system and improve the speed with which complaints are dealt with.

The MoD’s initial response to the Wigston report has been very positive.  This attitude should be welcomed and encouraged.  But this also needs to convert into positive action and a commitment to improve the workplace for service personnel; creating a fair system that they deserve and can be proud of.

Strict time limits apply to service complaints.  If you or anyone you know has suffered from bullying, harassment or discrimination during their service, they should contact a solicitor for impartial and free advice.

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